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IDF Soldiers Missing-in-Action: Israel-Hezbollah Prisoner Exchange

(January 29, 2004)

In exchange for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, missing since October 2000, and one Israeli businessman, abducted in October 2000 under questionable circumstances, Israel released more than 430 Arab prisoners on January 29, 2004. Those released by Israel included 400 Palestinian prisoners who were released to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another 29 prisoners from Arab nations, and a German-citizen who worked with Hezbollah, were flown to Germany and then most went to Lebanon. In addition, the bodies of approximately 60 Lebanese terrorists were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross at the Israel-Lebanon border near Rosh Hanikra.

The prisoner exchange was the latest example of Israel's determination to bring its soldiers home, dead or alive. In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)-General Command. Many of the Arabs who were freed became leaders in the first Palestinian intifada.

The three soldiers in the latest swap, Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwaeid, were abducted by Hizbollah while on patrol near the Lebanese border in October 2000. Elhanan Tannenbaum remains a figure surrounded by rumors. Tannenbaum is believed to have been traveling in Abu Dhabi when he was abducted in October 2000. The day before the release, he appeared on al-Manar, Hezbollah television, saying that he came to search for information on Ron Arad and, "at the same time I came to do something for my own house from a financial point of view."

The exchange was hailed by the Palestinian Authority and viewed as a national holiday in Lebanon. In Israel, however, the public was deeply divided over the wisdom of the deal. A Ma'ariv survey found 44 percent of Israeli respondents in favor of the German-brokered exchange while 43 percent opposed the deal. In October 2003, when initial word of an exchange with Hezbollah came out, the prominent posek [halachic decisor] for the Masorti (Conservative) community in Israel, Professor Rabbi David Golinkin, ruled, along with numerous other prominent halachic authorities, that "Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done."

In the wake of the morning rush hour bus bombing in Jerusalem's upscale Rehavia neighborhood, some last minute voices were heard urging the government to stop the prisoner swap. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) told Maariv, "Yesterday this murderous organization promised us a 'surprise,' so we must stop the release of 400 terrorists before we discover that they've put us in a death trap." According to Dr. Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the message this swap sends to the Palestinians is that "the only way in which anyone can succeed in freeing prisoners is Hezbollah's way of abducting Israeli soldiers and citizens … We're going to be sorry for this."

In Lebanon, Hizbollah prepared a series of events celebrating the return of their prisoners. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, President Emil Lahoud, and Parliament Chairman Nabil Berri will attend the main event, scheduled for the night of January 29. The day before the exchange, on January 28, 2004, Hezbollah activists were handing out candy to passersby in Beirut. During the ceremony, the Lebanese television station LBC will be airing a video documenting the abduction of the three Israeli soldiers. They have already begun airing videos documenting the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon and previous receptions of Hezbollah prisoners.

The deal is supposed to include a second phase that would create a joint German- Hezbollah working group to seek information on Ron Arad, an Air Force navigator who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Arad's last known captor, Mustafa Dirani, was among the 436 Arab prisoners released in the exchange. If evidence is uncovered about Arad's fate, the second phase will include the release of more prisoners. Ron Arad's family said that if Arad is found to be dead, they would oppose a prisoner swap just to get back his body.

Jonathan Peled, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, "We are releasing another 400 Palestinians with a very heavy heart, because we know that these 400 will return very quickly to the cycle of violence."

With the release of Elchanan Tannenbaum, Benny Avraham, Omar Sawad, and Adi Avitan, the fate of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, and Guy Hever are still unknown. Arad, Baumel, Feldman, Katz, and Hever are classified by the Government of Israel as missing in action. Zachary Baumel holds dual American-Israeli citizenship.

Sources: Maariv, Forward, Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, Insight Israel